Saturday, January 29, 2005

Two Senses of 'Analytic Philosophy'

Along with discussion of the meaning of ‘conservative,’ there has also been some discussion over at The Conservative Philosopher of the meaning of ‘analytic’ in connection with philosophy. I suggest we distinguish two senses of ‘analytic,’ one of which could be called substantive, the other procedural. The first sense is exemplified in the following passage from Michael Dummett:


What distinguishes analytical philosophy, in its diverse manifestations, from other schools is the belief, first, that a philosophical account of thought can be attained through a philosophical account of language, and secondly, that a comprehensive account can only be so attained. Widely as they differed from one another, the logical positivists, Wittgenstein in all phases of his career, Oxford ‘ordinary language’ philosophy and post-Carnapian philosophy in the United States as represented by Quine and Davidson all adhered to these twin axioms. (Michael Dummett, Origins of Analytical Philosophy, Harvard UP, 1996, p. 4.)

Dummet goes on to remark that one can work in the "analytical tradition" without belonging to the analytical school of thought. He cites the example of Gareth Evans, whose posthumous Varieties of Reference is based on a rejection of the "twin axioms" inasmuch as Evans holds that "language can be explained only in terms of antecedently given notions of different types of thought...." (Ibid.) Dummett:

On my characterisation, therefore, Evans was no longer an analytical philosopher. He was, indeed, squarely within the analytical tradition: the three pillars on which his book rests are Russell, Moore, and Frege. Yet is it only as belonging to this tradition – as adopting a certain philosophical style and as appealing to certain writers rather than to certain others – that he remains a member of the analytical school. (Ibid. pp. 4-5)

If there is an analytic school, then Dummett is probably right that it, and its sub-schools (logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and so on) rest on the ‘linguistic turn.’ But one can work in the analytic tradition without being an analytic scholastic, i.e., without belonging to the analytic school. To work in the analytic tradition is in part to adopt a certain style: one strives to be clear, precise, and rigorous. One is sensitive to language and how it can lead and mis-lead our thinking. For example, one does not encourage and exploit the rich ambiguity of natural languge, the way a poet or a contemporary French philosopher might, but seeks to regiment it. One argues, rather than asserts, and one argues explicitly even to the point of pedantry (numbering premises and conclusions, specifying rules of inference, etc.). One focuses on problems and theses rather than persons and texts. If an analytic philosopher writes about a text from the history of philosophy, he or she will attempt to reconstruct the arguments and show their relevance to contemporary concerns. One narrows one’s focus to well-defined issues. One does not bring up half-dozen ill-defined themes in one paragraph. Nor does one name-drop. For an example of these two chief French sins, see here.

What I have just said goes part of the way toward defining the analytic procedure in philosophy, the analytic style. Dummett also mentions "appealing to certain writers rather than certain others." But I see no reason why this should be part of the analytic style or procedure. There was an issue of the Monist a while back on Analytical Thomism. Is the title of that issue an oxymoron? It would be absurd to argue that no philosopher can be procedurally analytic if he writes about the ideas and arguments of a philosopher who is not on the short list with Frege, Russell, Moore, and a few others.

I’ll end with a couple of anecdotes. In 1993, I met a Continental philosopher who identified analytic philosophy with logical positivism. Well, some philosophers, like many Democrats, cannot stop living in the past. Another Continental philosopher, a former colleague, thought that analytic philosophers just "analyze propositions" as opposed to dealing with reality. Both misunderstandings are too obvious to merit refutation.